Whip, Spur and Lash

John Ray

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation by Andrew George
    Allen Lane, 225 pp, £20.00, March 1999, ISBN 0 7139 9196 8

Mesopotamia comes across as a sad place. Almanacs of the Middle East will tell you that it has its fair share of sunshine, but it is easier to imagine it under a leaden sky. Mesopotamia – Chaldaea, Sumer, Assyria, Babylonia, Iraq, or any other of its many names – consists of a patchy flood plain, without much cohesion and with wide-open frontiers on two of its sides. To the south is desert and ocean, while the east is overshadowed by the Iranian plateau, where enemies can gather in numbers. The rivers of this plain are unpredictable, especially the Tigris, and they can do damage without warning. The city-states which grew up there – the first city-states in history – spent much of their time eyeing each other nervously, and preparing for the next war of retribution. If you were lucky, and got hold of power, you held onto it, and distributed it among your friends and relatives. This made sense, because the gods of Mesopotamia did the same. Unlike their counterparts in ancient Egypt, they were not kind. They created human beings only because they wanted someone to do the dirty jobs for them, and they were not greatly interested in human beings’ fate. There was not much justice about the way things were, and the gods were not intending to add to it. But they were not to be ignored, in case they became offended and took away what little you had.

Something of this is brought out by a cynical text that probably dates from the first millennium BC. It takes the form of a dialogue between a master and his slave. The master feels that his life is pointless, but he comes up with a series of ideas of how to pass the time. The slave agrees with all of them, but the master immediately tires of each in turn. As he does so, the pliant slave points out their drawbacks. Some commentators have argued that this is satire, others that it is deadly serious. At one point the master decides to become a public benefactor, and the slave approves, but this idea, too, immediately palls. The slave takes up his point:

Do it not, my lord, do it not!
Climb the ruined walls of ancient cities and walk around;
look upon the skulls of high and low.
Who is the evildoer, who is the benefactor?

The people of northern and western Mesopotamia spoke Akkadian, a semitic language akin to Hebrew and Arabic, and the mercantile culture of much of the Near East was part of this tradition. But in early times much of the south, which was more urbanised, spoke Sumerian, a language whose affinities are unknown. From time to time the idea resurfaces that Sumerian is related to the Dravidian languages of India, although people in Turkey and Japan have sometimes convinced themselves that they, too, are part of the picture. Since much of Mesopotamian civilisation, especially writing, originated in the south – the medium for writing, clay tablets impressed with a reed, is well-suited to a riverine culture – the prestige of Sumerian meant that it occupied a place in the national curriculum long after it had become extinct in speech. This may have happened around 2000 BC, but its later role was similar to that of Latin in the Middle Ages. A school text quoted by Andrew George in his new translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh makes a sardonic point about Sumerian and its importance:

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